A New Jersey panel of scientific advisers on Thursday recommended that the state adopt the nation’s toughest limit on PFOA, a chemical that has been linked to illnesses including cancer, fetal growth problems, and high cholesterol.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute formally proposed a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) of 0.014 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water as a level that would protect public health. If adopted by the Department of Environmental Protection, the limit would be the strongest in the U.S., undercutting guidance levels of 0.07 ppb set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 0.04 ppb by the New Jersey DEP.
The proposal, the result of more than two years’ work by DWQI scientists, will now be subject to a 60-day public comment period, after which it may be amended and then sent to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin who will begin the process of establishing the MCL which will allow the state to regulate the chemical.
The new standard, first unveiled earlier this month, is expected to set the national standard for regulation of the chemical that has been the focus of increased national attention after being reported in 27 states. They include New Jersey where 12 water systems serving about 1.3 million people were found to contain PFOA at above the state’s guidance level, according to DEP data released in January.
Gloria Post, a DEP scientist who served on the DWQI’s health effects sub-committee, told a meeting in Lawrenceville that PFOA was about five times more prevalent in New Jersey than nationally. The chemical has been found in 10.5 percent of New Jersey’s public water systems, compared with only 1.9 percent across the country, she said.
Even low levels of PFOA in drinking water can be damaging to human health, Post said. “One of our main concerns is that low levels in drinking water mean a very substantial contribution to total exposure,” she said.
The chemical, which the EPA described as a “likely carcinogen” in 2006, is also presumed to be hazardous to the human immune system, Post said. While tests on rodents and monkeys showed PFOA has a series of adverse health effects, it has also been shown to have ill effects on humans, she said.
“Human data provide strong support for a public health protective approach,” Post said, in a presentation lasting more than an hour.
PFOA, whose uses included nonstick cookware, carpets and clothing, has been phased out by U.S. manufacturers but persists in some water systems.
DWQI chairman Keith Cooper said the higher rate of PFOA detection in New Jersey partly reflects the state’s strenuous efforts to find it. “We’ve been looking for it longer than other people. We’ve been doing more analysis in the state of New Jersey than most other states combined. Some states have not even looked for it,” he said. Cooper said increased attention is being paid to PFOA and other members of the PFC family of chemicals because they were linked to fire-fighting foams on military bases.
The PFOA recommendation is the second sent to the DEP since DWQI, a group of government officials, academic scientists and water company executives, resumed work in 2014 after nearly four years when it did not meet.
Although environmentalists and public health campaigners have welcomed the panel’s restart, many are accusing the DEP of dragging its feet on the panel’s first recommendation – for PFNA, another member of the PFC family of chemicals.
The DEP has not acted on the PFNA recommendation which DWQI submitted more than a year ago, and the delay is raising more questions about the DEP’s position, Cooper said.
“I am starting to ask more questions about it,” Cooper told NJ Spotlight. “I haven’t heard any discussion about a timetable or anything like that. I assume that they will be moving forward, I would hope shortly.”
Cooper said he hoped the PFOA initiative, when finalized, will be considered by the DEP along with another recommendation, for the chemical 1,2,3 TCP, which was formally approved by the panel on Thursday.
Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that has advocated vigorously for tighter control of PFCs in drinking water, welcomed the DWQI’s measure on Thursday and urged quick action by the DEP.
“The evidence that has been presented here is nothing short of horrifying” for water in New Jersey, said DRN’s deputy director, Tracy Carluccio. While the proposed limit represents a stronger safeguard on public health, it should ideally be zero, she said. “There should be no PFOA,” she said. “Nature didn’t put it there. It was put there by responsible parties that now should be responsible for cleaning it up.”
Anthony Matarazzo, a senior official with New Jersey American Water, and a member of DWQI’s treatment sub-committee, said technology such as granular activated carbon filtration is available to allow the cleanup of PFOA and other PFCs. “By no means is treatability going to be a limiting factor,” he said.